Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lessons from the heartland

Jonathan Rutherford, writing about how the left is 'in a state of intellectual disarray', argues that "the centre left now faces an epochal task of constructing a political economy and philosophy that has broad electoral appeal and which is able to contest the Liberalism of the Labour right and the right wing communitarianism of the Conservatives."

Rutherford says that the way to achieve this is through a "plural politics of alliances held together by an ethical form of socialism." Ethical socialism "offers a materialist politics of the individual rooted in the social goods that give meaning to people’s lives: home, family, friendships, good work, locality, and imaginary communities of belonging."

Personally, I find this kind of theorising quite abstract and hard to understand. I prefer to learn from actual examples of people and groups who have helped their communities by putting these values into practice.

So I'd like to introduce you to the Gellideg Foundation Group.

Gellideg is a social housing estate in the north of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. The Gellideg Foundation Group was formed in 1998 by 6 mothers on the estate who wanted to create better life for our children. They now employ over 35 people, delivering programmes across the themes of health, youth, education and the environment. Over 100 local residents volunteer their time to provide activities for all ages, across the ward.

They are a grassroots organisation. All projects and services offered by the Gellideg Foundation Group are born out of a expressed community need. There is a culture of ongoing participatory community consultation and engagement, formal and informal, which informs the direction of the projects offered by the Gellideg Foundation Group.

All activities within the Gellideg Foundation Group affirm the philosophy of the organisation – to build the capacity of the local community. This then enables the community to gain more independence and to exercise more control of its own affairs. This is achieved by:

  • Employing and training local people to enhance the local economy
  • Believing in and valuing skills and talents within the community which promotes independence by utilising those skills within the Gellideg Foundation Group and raising hopes and aspirations.
  • Advocating for individuals and groups at a local, regional and national level to ensure that the community has a voice
  • Offering training courses to enable individuals to develop both personally and professionally
  • Working in partnership with the local community and other organisations for the benefit of individuals and families
  • Having a non-judgemental approach to individuals, families and the community
You can read about the history of the group, and how it has developed, here. They run a co-op fruit and veg shop, a credit union, activities for young people, environmental projects, a creche, workshops and much more.

Their ethos is best summed up by something that their Director said about their work with people who had been in prison. “For us, they aren’t “ex-offenders” or “hard to reach”, they are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and we help them because we love them and because they are part of our community”. It's a totally different way of thinking and working from the technical and dehumanising language of "hard to reach", "NEETs", "customers", "the incapacity benefit stock" and so on which government ministers and people who work in the public or corporate welfare sector use.

Critics of so-called 'identity politics' would do well to note that one of the big breakthroughs for Gellideg Foundation was when in 2002 they carried out a Gendered Needs Analysis, which gave them the analysis and understanding of their community which helped make them so successful. A lot of their funding also came from both the European Union and various quangos - showing how both of these much maligned organisations can help civil society groups to flourish.


I think that anyone who is worried about 'the intellectual disarray of the left' and wants to know about how the centre-left can undertake its epochal task should start by going over to Merthyr and talking to Colette, Mandy and others at Gellideg, and others like them up and down the country - people who the political class may not have heard of, but whose patient, dedicated, grassroots work should be the inspiration for all us lefties.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Writing good leaflets

David Semple and Cath Arakelian are both critical of the quality of Labour's leaflets in the Norwich North by-election. There is a link to some of the leaflets here.

Writing good leaflets is actually quite difficult, and I have seen many horrendous ones produced by the central party and local activists alike. So to kick off a discussion, here are some thoughts about what makes for a good leaflet:

1. The most important thing is to get some kind of leaflet delivered to people regularly, all year round. A leaflet which people get 1 year before an election, or better yet once every 2-3 months, is more effective than one which they get one day before an election. Even if you don't have the design skills to make a really good leaflet, just a side of A4 with some local information about what Labour is trying to do and how to get in touch is much, much better than nothing.

2. Leaflets don't have to be expensive to produce. I am always astonished at the amount of time and money which political parties spend on making leaflets look to the casual observer like they are advertising pizza for delivery or collection. Some of the very best leaflets are in black and white, and look authentically like they were produced on a home computer by a local resident who cares about the area - because they were. There is a time and place for glossy leaflets, but you don't need them to win elections.

3. Write about what your readers are interested in, not what you are interested in. There was a bit in one of the Norwich leaflets about how Labour cares about jobs because Yvette Cooper came to visit - this is a daft thing to write because no one except for total political obsessives knows or cares about who Yvette Cooper is. There was another bit about the 'Australian-style points based immigration system'. Using jargon like that is a sure sign that the author knows a lot more about what people in Westminster are preoccupied by than by what local people in Norwich care about.

4. 'Localise' the leaflets as far as possible, with different versions and different stories for different areas, and make them an interesting source of news about the local area. People will read a story about their local park, but won't be so interested in a story about improvements to a park on the other side of town. To do this, you have to know about the local area, which is why we need to make better use of the local knowledge which our members and supporters have.

I'm sure there's much more, but I think those are some of the key points and where we often go wrong.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Child poverty bill criticism fail

The government will be introducing a child poverty bill, which aims by 2020 to ensure that no children are growing up in relative poverty.

Grassroots Tories have attacked this plan, because they claim it is mathematically impossible to achieve this. They combine this with amusing jokes about how the government is full of maths clowns, before going a bit quiet when it turns out that it is, in fact, they who are the maths clowns.

Others say that poverty is caused by teachers, who teach poor children that they face discrimination, and that this is why social mobility has fallen. In a similar way, presumably people become ill because they visit a doctor and the doctor tells them that they are sick.

Meanwhile, Labour MP Tom Harris attacks one of Labour's big achievements in government by claiming that "those who claim that we should simply increase state benefits to help lift families out of poverty haven’t been paying attention for the last 25 years" ignoring the fact that that's exactly what Labour did (and that higher benefits for, say, lone parents helped increase the number who got jobs).

Perhaps, in future, before people decide to share their brilliant ideas for reducing poverty, they could understand the terms which they choose to write about, familiarise themselves with what teachers do, or understand the consequences of the policies that they have voted for. Better yet, a period of silence from them and more attention to people who actually know what they are talking about.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Norwich North and politician's logic

Politician's logic goes as follows:

Something must be done
This is something
Therefore we must do it

A little while back, something had to be done about public anger over MPs' expenses. Kicking out Ian Gibson (who, whatever his other qualities, had been using his expenses for personal enrichment) was something. Therefore we did it.

And now people are just as cross about MPs' expenses, and instead of a leftie and well respected Labour MP, we're going to have a Tory instead.

Worth remembering this fiasco next time the cry goes up that action must be taken immediately whenever the next great political excitement comes up.

Somalia and 'market anarchism'

Ex-Lib Dem councillor turned libertarian anarchist Jock Coats argues that Somalia shows how an absence of government can be a good thing. His argument is that Somalia is proof that statelessness can bring improvements faster than government can.

Except, that's not what Somalis think:

"We are very interested in paying taxes," says Mr Abdullahi - not a sentiment which often passes the lips of a high-flying businessman.

And Mr Abdulkadir at the Global Internet Company fully agrees.

"We badly need a government," he says. "Everything starts with security - the situation across the country.

"All the infrastructure of the country has collapsed - education, health and roads. We need to send our staff abroad for any training."

Since 1991, in contrast to the rest of Somalia, Somaliland has remained largely peaceful and relatively safe. And, not coincidentally, it holds democratic elections and has a functioning state.

According to 'market anarchism', it is a sign of progress if you can buy a phone without the shop having to pay taxes to the government, even if people can't use their phones outside because armed gunmen would steal them.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Open Left and the redistribution of power

Many leftie thinkers have been contributing to a series organised by 'Open Left' about what it means to be a leftie and why they are lefties. This is part of a process which is intended to help revive the political Left.

The good news is that there is a lot of overlap in their ideas, even though these lefties are drawn from all factions of the Labour Party and beyond. They talk about how lefties are opposed to all sorts of discrimination, the need to reduce poverty and inequality, the belief that our society could be very different and better for all of us.

But what I think is really interesting is that none of them mention political power. When these kinds of discussions were held just over a century ago, securing political power for working class people was what brought the Labour Party into existence. And if anything, the gap between the powerful and the rest is greater now than it was then.

Something by Alex Smith, editor of Labour List, summed up the 'Open Left' approach:

"Yes, our society should be meritocratic. We absolutely need the best people, and the right people, in the right jobs. As you say, someone who's tone deaf or has two left feet is not going to be a musician or a footballer.

But that meritocracy should be based from a starting point - legally, socially and culturally - of absolute equality of opportunity and aspiration. That means creating a society which is totally free from prejudice."

I think that reflects a position which most, if not all, contributors to 'Open Left' could agree with. The task of the left is to remove all the barriers which currently exist, whether caused by poverty, lack of educational opportunity or attainment, discrimination and so on. Once this has been achieved, 'the best people' can rise from the ranks to get the right jobs, regardless of their background.


While the Open Left society would have many advantages over our own, I don't entirely agree with this approach. One of the radical, subversive and wonderful things about democracy is that (in theory at least) it gives equal power to each and every person, irrespective of merit. There are almost endless occasions when the interests or priorities of the majority of people conflict with those of the experts or of the politically powerful and well-connected. In a meritocratic society, power is wielded by the minority who are judged to have the most 'merit'. Is that really what the left should be aiming for?

Furthermore, creating 'equality of capability' and ending discrimination are activities for a minority of policy experts to take the lead on. As a political project, it seems to involve identifying problems and barriers to people being successful, and using a variety of policy tools to remove them. In contrast, redistributing power is something which, by definition, everyone has to be involved in.

If you look at the great achievements of the left over the past century, from the NHS to the weekend, civil rights and gay equality, the old age pension to the minimum wage, the recurring theme is that of ordinary people coming together to use their power, whether through the ballot box or in the streets.

Or as Eugene Debs put it,

"I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses — you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks."

Monday, July 20, 2009

What might have been

As James Purnell launches his new think tank project, having seemingly learned nothing from his undistinguished ministerial career, it seems an appropriate moment to look at how things might have been so different. So let me present, from Paskini's alternative history files:

The Guardian, editorial, Saturday 8th May 2010:

As the dust settles on the recent elections, one man above all can claim credit for Labour's remarkable fourth general election victory. Seemingly certain to be Labour's next leader, Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell has seen his fortunes rise along with those of his party over the past two years.

It is worth remembering that when Mr Purnell first took over at the DWP, the Conservative Party's demands for punitive 'workfare' policies and greater involvement of the private sector in the delivery of welfare services seemed to have captured the public mood. At that time, he was derided even by some within his own party for claiming that the main task of his department was to prepare for when unemployment rose sharply. His decision to create an advisory panel of people who had direct experience of poverty to shape the policies of his department was widely mocked and was memorably described by one Daily Mail columnist as 'Putting the scroungers in charge of the asylum'.

But as the world economy slumped into crisis, even his fiercest critics, such as Fraser Nelson of the Spectator, have been forced to acknowledge that Purnell's approach has been vindicated. The introduction of free childcare for all working parents, one of the advisory panel's first recommendations, has seen employment levels amongst parents rise even during an economic downturn. And the support available to unemployed people, provided by Jobcentre Plus and local voluntary groups, is a model which has been copied around the world.

Early analysis of last Thursday's election results show a significant increase in the turnout, particularly amongst those on lower incomes. George Osborne's much repeated comments that halving child poverty 'would have to wait' and that public spending cuts were 'a higher priority for me' were ruthlessly exploited by Labour strategists.

In marginal constituency after marginal constituency, the Labour vote was swelled by the support of those who had, in some cases, never voted before. It was Purnell who first identified that reducing child poverty was not only a moral imperative and essential for boosting the economy, but also the key to building an election-winning coalition. As he predicted in the pages of this newspaper last year, in every marginal constituency, the majority of the winning party was smaller than the number of families living in poverty.

The Conservatives will be devastated after their fourth successive defeat, particularly after holding such large leads in the opinion polls. Their much derided policies for reducing unemployment, based on a discredited report by a city banker, certainly contributed to the scale of their defeat. But it would be unfair for Lord Freud to bear all the blame, as the past two years have not been kind to those who believe in smaller government and unregulated markets.

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown confirming that he plans to step down in a year's time, and with the economy growing again after two years of recession, the future looks very bright for Mr Purnell. And deservedly so.

Tory plans for foreign aid: bureaucratic, regressive and humiliating

The Bickerstaffe Record absolutely demolishes the Tory green paper on International Development:

"This is just real world-free nonsense, set out to appease those on the right like Dale and his trolls and to make the Conservatives sound tough.

The problem is that it’s a nonsense which requires an additional highly paid member of every national DfID team to implement it (whatever that means), at the expense of local knowledge and decision-making. It’s a nonsense which, if enacted, would actually militate against effective aid by adding a new layer of that much-reviled ‘bureacracy’.

And overall, the problem with the proposals are that they confuse rhetoric with substance. Looked at closely, there is nothing in the ‘green paper’ about the actual substance of the aid and development programming; it’s all about tinkering round the edges to keep Daily Mail readers happy.

But keeping the Daily Mail readership happy will come at a cost.

Nothing substantial will change in the way DfId goes about its business, because there’s a tacit acknowledgment that DfID actually does a pretty good job overall (this is reflected in what is actually quite a mature new White Paper from DfID itself), not least in its focus on basic services and livelihoods.

But DfID staff will, if the Conservatives get into power, have to pay lip service to these new bureaucratic checklists and rules, and that will damage the laudable moves towards within DfID towards enhanced local decision making and respectful engagement with host countries and their governments.

Despite the rhetoric about empowerment, this Conservative ‘green paper’ is about a withdrawal from the progressive stance taken by DfID over the last decade, and a return of aid as a means of international institutional domination and humiliation."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Carbon emissions and deprivation

Kerry McCarthy reports on a piece of research which compares carbon emissions by postcode area. It finds, unsurprisingly, that the wealthier an area, the higher the level of carbon emissions. Two thoughts on this:

1. Firstly, it would be good to compare this data with the information from the indices of multiple deprivation - to find out how strong the link is between deprivation and carbon emissions. That would make a great (if slightly tedious in terms of number-crunching) research project.

2. One idea could be to link the amount of funding that local areas get from their council or from central government to their levels of household emissions - "rewarding" communities which are emitting less while at the same time helping to close the gap between rich and poor. Over time, this could both build links between the environmental and anti-poverty movements, and also provide an incentive for people who want to improve their local area to figure out ways of reducing carbon emissions in their neighbourhood.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Political incorrectness gone mad

You may have heard it mentioned by conservatives that certain opinions are practically off-limits, and that lefties have been preventing people from arguing that, say, the traditional family is the best way of raising children or that immigration should be reduced.

For example, I have read or seen these opinions argued for, and claims made about how they have been suppressed, in the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Evening Standard, by religious leaders of all the major faiths, by the Conservative Party, the UK Independence Party, the British National Party, in bookshops, in reports produced by think tanks, on the telly, on the radio, and, of course, on the internet (this is not an exhaustive list).

I therefore conclude that us lefties are obviously doing a pretty hopeless job of using political correctness to stifle freedom of speech, and need to jolly well try a bit harder.

But more seriously, this whining appears utterly impervious to the actual evidence. The Conservative Party fought the entire 2005 election campaign on the subject of immigration, the media gives a massively disproportionate amount of coverage to the BNP, and still right-wing people go on about how we need to break the decade long silence and have a proper debate about immigration policy.

By "freedom of speech" they seem to mean "no one should be allowed to call us bigoted or disagree with us when we hold forth on the subject of immigration or single parents". It's the modern version of Orwell's 'Ignorance is Strength'.

Political correctness is sometimes caricatured as people being oversensitive and trying to prevent anyone from being able to criticise them or their arguments. Ironically, this caricature describes exactly the tactic used by conservatives who pretend that lefties who criticise right-wing arguments are stifling debate - a kind of 'political incorrectness gone mad'. In a similar vein, the BNP have adopted many of the worst caricatures of what 'identity politics' aims to achieve and tried to apply them to white British people, for example the comical idea of 'White History Month'.

I was reminded of this, and just how intrinsic this persecution complex is to the political strategy of the 'conservative movement', when reading an article about Sarah Palin:

"Indeed, if political figures stand for ideas, victimization is what Ms. Palin is all about. It is her brand, her myth. Ronald Reagan stood tall. John McCain was about service. Barack Obama has hope. Sarah Palin is a collector of grievances. She runs for high office by griping.

This is no small thing, mind you. The piling-up of petty complaints is an important aspect of conservative movement culture. For those who believe that American life consists of the trampling of Middle America by the "elites" -- that our culture is one big insult to the pious and the patriotic and the traditional -- Sarah Palin's long list of unfair and disrespectful treatment is one of her most attractive features. Like Oliver North, Robert Bork, and Clarence Thomas, she is known not for her ideas but as a martyr, a symbol of the culture-war crimes of the left.

To become a symbol of this stature Ms. Palin has had to do the opposite of most public figures. Where others learn to take hostility in stride, she and her fans have developed the thinnest of skins."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fit to work, but can't work

The FT reports:

"More than two-thirds of applicants for sickness benefits are being rejected under a new testing regime, casting doubt on the validity of 2.6m existing claimants deemed unfit for work.

According to data seen by several welfare industry figures, up to 90 per cent of applicants are being judged able to work in some regions and placed on unemployment rolls rather than long-term ill-health benefits."

About 65 per cent of applications for incapacity benefit were approved until it was replaced last autumn – suggesting the chances of passing and failing have been reversed under the new ill-health benefit, the “employment and support allowance”."

Between 2010-2013, all existing claimants of incapacity benefit will have these tests.

Lord Freud, the Tory spokesman on welfare, said, "“These are remarkable figures. The tragedy is that it has taken so long to tighten the system, with the effect that hundreds of thousands of people have been locked into long-term dependency.”

Just think this one through...

The first result of this new policy is that people will receive lower benefits, because Jobseekers' Allowance pays less than Employment and Support Allowance. So the new system is taking money from some of the poorest people in our society. (£95.15/week for the higher rate of ESA, compared to £64.30/week for JSA).

According to Freud, that's fine, because rather than being 'locked into long-term dependency', people will be empowered to be able to get a job, and being in work is better for your health, not to mention your bank balance, than being unemployed.

But at a time when unemployment is rising, it is a simple matter of fact that the overwhelming majority of these people won't be able to get a job. Paying people Jobseekers' Allowance and requiring them to look for work does not, in fact, create new jobs. Although one side effect is that it will increase the unemployment figures by up to 1.8 million (if the rejection rate of existing claimants is the same as that of new claimants) over the next four years.

The irony is that the taxpayer doesn't even save any money from reducing the benefit bill. Carrying out these Work Capability Assessments costs money, over £1 billion. Then Job Centre Plus advisers have to be paid to give Work Focused Interviews to people claiming JSA. After six months, private companies get be paid to enrol them in the Flexible New Deal, and paid again to help them search for jobs (and paid again should they actually find a job, and paid again if the person stays in the job for 6 months or more).

There's clearly a problem with the current welfare system, and many people receiving sickness benefits could, in the right circumstances, work. But the welfare reforms won't create the jobs which people with health problems could do. Instead, they are taking from the poor and giving to public sector bureaucrats and private companies which are dependent on corporate welfare.

According to Lord Freud, the way to make people independent is to pay them less money and require them to comply with whatever their adviser tells them to do. It's a very odd definition of 'independence'.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tories and fascists

'Letters from a Tory' linked to Nick Griffin's radio interview about how the EU should start sinking boats in the Mediterranean to stop people from Africa coming to Europe. It's not hard for any decent person, whether Labour, Tory or whatever, to criticise this evil, racist, stupid and ineffective idea.

Or so you might have thought. But at the first mention of immigration, he and his chums appeared to have forgotten that Tories are meant to be against the "left wing" BNP. Here's their response:

"In olden times people arriving to live in your land and take your resources were called invaders. We killed them. I bet every invading army has had a fair few economic migrants hoping to profit from their entry into new lands but that doesn’t change the characteristic of invasion!"

"Whether or not sinking ships is the answer I’m not too sure. Perhaps we could build some walls in order to keep the undesirables out? There’s certainly no historical precedent suggesting that this would be a flawed idea….."

"Well, yes, but they didn’t have feeble asylum systems and ridiculous human rights laws back in those days."

"Stop making the UK the land of milk and honey for the invaders and they will stop coming and many will leave."

"Very over the top statement but in essence he’s right. We have to put a stop to it. I obviously don’t believe that people should murdered but I do believe that we need to stem the tide of refugees coming to Europe...Britain, the shining example of democracy and free speech has now become an anal, totalitarian state because we are not allowed to say anything. We are even being forced to employ foreigners in the name of equality. Is that anyway to run a business? I would not employ someone who is likely to run straight to the equality commission because of a silly joke or a word said in anger...We can’t all afford BUPA and private schools! It’s got to stop and now!"


And the best bit of all? The individual who left that last comment is "an expatriate in involuntary exile in Spain. I decided to leave my beautiful country because it no longer felt like my home and if home is where you hang your hat or sombrero, then it may as well be somewhere warm. I will return when my country has been restored with all it's rights and freedoms!"

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Newsnight: fair and balanced

Conservative Home is very angry about Newsnight having four "lefties" and no "righties" on its new 'Politics Pen' show.

These "lefties" are:

Deborah Mattison, Gordon Brown's opinion pollster

Matthew Taylor, Tony Blair's former adviser on political strategy

Greg Dyke, who voted Liberal Democrat in 2005, warned that if Labour were elected then 'democracy was under threat', and is currently an adviser to the Conservative Party on the UK's creative sector

Digby Jones, the former Director General of the CBI, who was approached by the Conservative Party about being their candidate for Mayor of London, who described trade unions as 'backward looking and not on today's agenda' and Labour as 'always in thrall to the unions', and who wouldn't join the Labour Party even when Gordon Brown appointed him as a minister

What Newsnight have done is picked a balanced panel with four members of the meritocratic elite, in order to give an idea about what the political establishment think about different options for public spending savings. They are drawn from quite a narrow ideological range, but that's rather the point.

It would be different and quite fun to get, say, Daniel Hannan, John McDonnell, Frank Field and Sir Patrick Cormack as the panel, but there's nothing wrong with Newsnight deciding it is more interesting to get a panel of people in the political mainstream and then different people from other perspectives putting forward proposals.

And anyone who thinks a panel with an adviser to the Conservative Party and an anti-union businessman is an example of 'all lefties and no righties' should find something more important to whine about.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Agreeing to disagree

There's been a small example in the past week of how things could go really badly wrong in the future for Labour.

Last week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Fabian Society published some research about public attitudes to inequality. Government minister John Denham gave a speech in response to this, suggesting different ways that Labour could persuade a majority of people to support the goal of increasing equality. This got reported as Denham rejecting of '1960s egalitarianism'. Denham then got denounced by Labour activists, including Roy Hattersley.

By yesterday, columnists were writing about how this showed a split pitting "Old Labourites, Compass, Jon Cruddas and a growing number of party activists...against...Denham and some powerful Blairites, still in government: Mandelson, Miliband, Jowell – not to mention those like James Purnell, who have left", in a battle for Labour's soul.

On this particular issue, this is a fight where just about everyone in Labour is actually on the same side. It isn't a right v left fight - champion of the Labour Right Luke Akehurst and Susan Press, chair of the Labour Representation Committee, agree on the central role that increasing equality has for Labour. And the research evidence is extremely clear. About 20% of people are 'traditional egalitarians', and about another 50-60% could be won over to support more equality but are currently sceptical.

So what is needed is to shift the way that we argue for equality in order to appeal to a wider audience. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that while the 'traditional egalitarians' aren't a majority, there is no way of building a majority without their enthusiastic support, and they mustn't be taken for granted.

There are two main challenges to this. The first is that the media loves to report 'splits' much more than people having civilised discussions to find common ground, and will twist people's words to try to provoke a fight. And the second, and much more important, is that different people in the Labour Party don't trust or get on with each other enough at the moment to be able to have a civilised kind of conversation.

For example, when I see a government minister quoted saying something stupid or obnoxious, I tend to assume that it is because they are trying to suck up to right-wing newspapers, rather than that they have been misquoted. This is because over the last few years government ministers have built up a track record of reliably saying stupid and obnoxious things to try to suck up to right wing newspapers, whether on housing, welfare, immigration or any other issues I care about. I know I'm not alone in this. Similarly, I know some comrades who get similarly exasperated when they hear Jon Cruddas or John McDonnell or suchlike on the telly criticising the government.

What this suggests is that any kind of discussion about Labour's future - what ideas to adopt in the future, how to build an election-winning coalition of support, which policies to keep and which to abandon - will quickly degenerate into an unproductive shouting match between different factions, conducted and analysed in the national newspapers to the general disgust of the electorate.

But it doesn't have to be this way, and it mustn't be this way. I hardly ever say this sort of thing, but some of the discussions on the internet hint at a better way. Online, Luke and Susan can agree about equality, and Hopi, Paul and Duncan can have a thoughtful and productive conversation about political economy, despite coming from different 'wings' of the party. David Miliband's John Smith memorial speech is an example of the kind of thoughtful contribution that we could do with more of.

Dropping post office privatisation, ID cards (in effect), and building more council housing are all good steps in the right direction. Government ministers need to get better at avoiding the temptation to take the piss out of lefties when doing announcements, and us lefties need to give the benefit of the doubt to what seem like genuine attempts to think about new ways of achieving our aims, even if it takes us out of our comfort zone.

In the 1980s, Labour tore itself apart over great issues of principle where there were big and fundamental disagreements. It would be both tragedy and farce if over the next few years we ended up tearing ourselves apart again over issues which, fundamentally, we all agree on.

Stateless and clueless in Somalia

The Mises Institute is "the world center of the Austrian School of economics and libertarian political and social theory." As part of their mission to bring libertarian political and social theory to a wider audience, they have a website which analyses current affairs from a libertarian perspective.

For example, they have an article called "Stateless in Somalia, and Loving It', written by someone who works in financial services, which explains that "Somalia has done very well for itself in the 15 years since its government was eliminated. The future of peace and prosperity there depends in part on keeping one from forming."

This article contends that the problems Somalia faces is because the United Nations and similar big government types keep on trying to force Somalia to have a government, whereas in fact Somali culture is tribal and is based on customary law which is like the laws of nature, so democracy would not work. Furthermore, while media sources such as the BBC report on famine, disease and civil war, they neglect to mention that Somalia's telecommunications industry is apparently flourishing.

One of the features of the Mises Institute's website is that it allows its readers to give all of its articles 'tags', which generate a weblink which describes the content of the article so that people who are interested can read other, similar articles.

So you can read the full libertarian analysis of how Somalia benefits from not having a government by following any of these links: wrong debunked in one article needs a governement when we have cellphones all libertarians to somalia

Monday, July 06, 2009

Meritocrats and spending cuts

Steve Bundred, the head of the Audit Commission, wrote an article on Sunday calling for a freeze in public sector wages as a 'painless' [sic] way for the government to make savings.

There are a number of excellent criticisms, pointing out the unfairness of this, that it would be bad for the economy, that it shows a complete lack of political judgement, and that Bundred is abusing his position.

I was trying to work out what Bundred's article reminded me of. At one level, it is just the latest example of a particular sort of class warfare, where wealthy and powerful people call for middle and working class people to suffer financially and get worse services. There will be a lot of this in the run up to the next election, and it is not a great surprise to see the head of a quango choosing to repeat Conservative Party talking points in order to curry favour with the people who may be responsible for deciding whether he keeps his job next year.

But an even better explanation was provided more than 50 years ago, in a book called 'The Rise of the Meritocracy'. This book predicted the rise of people like Bundred, those who owe their vast income and power to their intelligence and effort, and whose lives are totally separate from the majority of the people. As one review explains: 'It is part satire, part a look into the future, and part a warning about where we are.

This book is written in a future Britain 2033 - which in many regards does not look that different from the present day. There are no real differences between the parties. The Labour Party as we understand it has been abolished. Education is everything in terms of getting on. Tests and measuring ability are the governing credo.

And yet this future world is not a fairer or happier place. Instead, those who are the winners in this world do so because of a narrower and narrower notion of 'ability' and 'merit' - which they see as virtuous and because they are somehow better. Seeing their individual success as a validation of their skills they see their lifestories as a success, and those who do not make it a failure.

Funnily enough, power, money and politics congregate around this 'new class', while the excluded majority are leaderless and have no political party to represent them in the way the working class was once represented by Labour.'

When Bundred refers to wage freezes as 'painless', he isn't thinking of cleaners or nursing assistants struggling to afford the weekly food shop, he is thinking, as meritocrats do, about numbers on a spreadsheet.

And when he writes about how wages have stagnated for many workers in the private sector, the underlying aim is to turn the 'little people' against each other depending on who their employer is - it doesn't begin to occur to him that wage freezes and job losses are the direct responsibility of his fellow meritocrats, and that maybe it is they who should bear a greater burden for helping the economy recover.

The 'Rise of the Meritocracy' is by far the most prescient of the dystopian novels from the middle of the last century. We're not at war with Eastasia or Eurasia, society isn't sorted into alphas, betas and so on, and Big Brother is a telly programme, not our leader (and no one loves it any more). But we are governed by an elite which think of themselves as having got to the top thanks to their intelligence and effort, and government ministers openly proclaim the aim of making Britain into a 'meritocracy'. The key thing to remember is that what is good for the meritocrats isn't the same as, and is often the opposite of, what's good for the rest of us.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Red Toryism - illiterate, ignorant and incomprehensible

Philip Blond, the so-called 'Red Tory', has just written an article setting out his new Big Idea for reducing poverty, which is about 'recapitalising the poor'.

These Big Ideas come along quite frequently, and there is quite an easy and quick way to test them out. Simply pick one policy area that you know about and see if the author's suggestions and analysis suggest they know what they are talking about. If so, read on, if not, bin the rest.

So here is Blond's 'Red Tory' approach to social housing:

"Councils have used their housing stock to generate cash income for benefit dependency for generations. By constantly raising rents, councils have created housing that the working poor cannot afford. Some sort of redress is required – a capital or asset credit, financed by a council bond, should be applied to those whose long-term benefit has, in effect, subsidised council receipts. This credit should be a tradable asset that, when conjoined with other new ventures such as community shares or social investment, can generate an asset effect for those whose routes out of poverty are presently so curtailed."

Leaving aside the atrocious writing style, this is total and utter drivel, even by the extremely low standards of most discussion about housing policy. Council rents are lower than rents in the private sector, whereas Blond appears to think they are 'unaffordable' for working people. The reason why very few working people can get a council house is because of the massive shortage of supply, not because of a conspiracy by councils to raise rents so that only people on housing benefits can afford the rent.

Based on this nonsense, he has a totally incomprehensible suggestion whereby councils will borrow money and give it to those of their tenants who have been on housing benefit for a long time. People will then be able to trade these capital credits, and this will give them a route out of poverty. They will get this (presumably) instead of housing benefit/Local Housing Allowance, because the idea is to move from spending on welfare to 'investment'. The kindest thing it is possible to say about this idea is that it doesn't address any of the problems that social housing tenants actually face.

Blond's other ideas seem at a first glance to be equally nonsensical, and he's been churning this sort of stuff out for months. But really, there is nothing to see here which is even worth beginning to engage with.

Tories fall out over section 28

You know those people who say 'Labour and Tories, they are just the same'?

I think they should read, the voice of the conservative grassroots, more often. Here's a topical article called, "I don't apologize for Section 28":

It begins "I am entirely comfortable in the presence of homosexuals" and then goes on to explain that "alas, tedious though it is, I shall be forced to defend Section 28 as the liberal Conservative measure that it was".

"As virtually all of you will know, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was introduced in direct and specific response to a situation in which gay liberation activists managed to get themselves elected to local authorities and in particular to the Inner London Education Authority. These activists then used their political position to force school libraries to carry literature directed at five and six year old children teaching them that it was perfectly normal to be raised in a family with homosexual parents."

"Most people at the time thought (and indeed, I'll bet most people today still think) that they do not pay their taxes to the local authority so that it can promote alternative lifestyles or force their schools to promote alternative lifestyles."


I find this sort of 1980s revivalism ("some of my best friends are homosexuals...but Something Must Be Done about the gay activists flaunting their alternative lifestyles, stealing our taxes and corrupting our children") quite funny to read and mock. But it is only funny because these people have been defeated so are not in power and can't impose their bigoted and hate-filled extremist agenda. There are some even more revolting arguments in the comments (as well, to be fair, as some outrage and disgust at this kind of prejudice). It's worth remembering, next time you hear that all the main parties are just the same, that there is still a live debate within the Tory Party about whether section 28 was a good idea or not.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Minimum Income Standard 2009

I wrote last year about a really interesting piece of research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which asked people to decide how much someone living in Britain today needs in order to be able to live on.

They have just released the updated version, Minimum Income Standard 2009. There are some really interesting and important findings:

- The minimum cost of living is rising at twice the rate of inflation, making it harder to live on a low income this year than last year.

- A single adult with no children now needs to earn at least £13,900 a year before tax to reach the minimum standard. This is a £500 rise from 2008; nearly half of this extra income is needed for the rising cost of food.

- About one in four people are living below the minimum income standard for Britain, and this is increasing as unemployment rises.

- The minimum cost of living has risen by 5%, contrasting with official inflation figures of 2½% (CPI) and -1% (RPI). A low-paid worker whose earnings were linked to the retail prices index could be 6% worse off this year, relative to the minimum cost of living.

- Job loss can leave you with less than half the income that you actually need to live.

You can read the whole report here

And you can check whether how your income compares to the minimum income standard here